3 Ways to Communicate More Effectively with Your Overseas Supplier

How To 

Perhaps you’ve been surprised, disappointed, or even taken advantage of by an overseas factory, and you'd like to turn things around. Or maybe you’re experiencing some of the following with your manufacturing supplier:

  • Your factory often misunderstands you
  • Small miscommunications lead to bigger errors that eat up time and resources
  • Your production schedule keeps getting pushed back due to unnecessary delays
  • You're starting to feel taken advantage of and suspicious
  • Improving communications seems impossible
  • You feel like giving up 

Know this: we feel your pain, and we’re going to help you out with our best advice for clear and effective factory communications. 

Years ago, during one of the first overseas manufacturing projects, we ordered a paperboard package for our product last minute. But back then, we were inexperienced and didn't make room in our schedule to sample, test, or confer with the factory about our packaging preferences. 

Details about specifications, quality, packaging, color, and design decisions get lost in translation—or even outright ignored. There are dozens of ways this can go sideways.

Josh Taylor, Product EVO

Sure enough, the factory ended up substituting our paperboard for a flimsy plastic card without checking with us, one that didn't properly hold our product. Items fell off the pegs they hung from, and our shipment arrived a mess. We ended up having to reprint and replace the packaging for over 5,000 units. And there are dozens of ways projects can go sideways like this.

More often than not, we're not being as clear as we think we are, especially when communicating with those from a different language and culture. Not to mention, it's not uncommon to think you're being clearer than you are. as well as over-estimate other's ability to understand. So here are some tips to help you foster solid, long-term communication with your overseas factories. 

3 Practices To Foster Good, Long-term Communication Foreign Suppliers

At Product EVO, we’ve learned a lot over the years. Both what makes a quality factory partnership -and what to view as red flags. Because the majority of overseas manufacturers are honest, reliable, and want to do good business with their U.S.-based partners. However, the key is good communication. Here's tips on avoiding the most common miscommunications with your supplier.  

1. Capture Specifications and Decisions in One Place To Prevent Mistakes

Many companies send good Tech Packs or CAD files to their overseas supplier when they start a project. During the product development journey, information and decisions about the product get spread over email, WeChat, calls, meetings, and various sample revisions. As a result, the factory can lose track of all of the decisions that have been made.

Do yourself the favor of documenting every specification and decision about your product in one place, and work to keep it updated.

Overseas factories have this uncanny ability to find the one phrase in an obscure email that you completely forgot about to back themselves up.

Josh Taylor, Product EVO

If you don’t keep all of the specifications, changes, and information in one place, we guarantee you will be in for unwanted surprises when you receive your product. A color will be wrong, the material will be different, the size won’t be right, a critical tolerance will be off, or in some cases—the product won’t even work. It can be incredibly frustrating.

You can argue with your manufacturer about it all you want. Overseas factories have this uncanny ability to find the one phrase in an obscure email that you completely forgot about to back themselves up. In many cases, you’ll find out the hard way that you failed to specify a clear requirement at all.

The unfortunate result of assumptions and a lack of specific, objective information is that you find yourself stuck with a bunch of inventory you’re less than happy with, or worse, that is completely unsellable.

Every time we leave even the smallest requirement blank, factories get it wrong. Every. Single. Time. Remember, if you leave anything open to interpretation, some overseas factories will intentionally exploit the gray areas to increase their profit.

Remember: leaving design details up to interpretation is a costly mistake for any company to make.

These specifications are often overlooked by companies. Be sure to document the following:

  • Critical Function

It seems obvious, but that’s the problem. Do not assume the factory knows what our product should do. Most U.S.-based companies don’t document their QC procedures at all. When they do, they often get so in the weeds that they fail to clearly inform the factory on the overall key function of the product they’re manufacturing. Be sure that your factory knows what your product does, how it should work, and how to test it too.

  • Bill of Materials (BOM)

A bill of materials lists all the materials, components, parts, and sub-assemblies needed to create a product. It’s your ingredient list for manufacturing a physical product. Make sure your foreign supplier has an up-to-date version of it, stored in your one central place.

  • Colors

Call out the Pantone or RAL colors for every color on your product and packaging, no matter how small. You must be as specific as possible. Fail to do this, and it will end up wrong.

  • Retail Packaging

Packaging regularly gets overlooked until after it gets screwed up. Packaging is a very big deal. Treat packaging with as much care as you do for your products. Clearly call out materials, dimensions, thicknesses, and colors (by the number). There should be zero room for interpretation.

  • Shipping Cartons

Your factory will always underestimate how much abuse cartons take during international shipping. Very often, factories pack way too much product into a carton and end up crushing the internal packaging during shipping. It is of paramount importance to use a suitable shipping carton for your product, especially for Air Freight and LCL shipments.

It’s a shame seeing that otherwise good products have been destroyed during transit. All of that time, work, and investment is lost due to one bad move. Do not overlook how you pack and ship your products. Experiencing it firsthand is downright painful.

Do some testing. It can be as simple as packaging up one of your samples and shipping it across the country and back to see how beat up it gets. Practical little tests like that can provide a lot of learning that goes a long way.

2. Create Clear Expectations To Prevent Surprises

Once you have all of your most up-to-date specifications housed in one place, you’ll want to reference them in detail to create clear expectations for what you will accept and reject after production.

1. Acceptable Quality Levels (AQL)

This is defined as the quality level that is the least tolerable for acceptance. Generally, you’ll categorize this into three levels. One for Critical items, another for Major items, and finally, Minor ones.

2. Quality Control (QC) Checklist

A quality control checklist gets into the details of the requirements the factory needs to meet. A quality control inspector will use it to understand the objective standards and tests used to verify that the products meet the AQL.

3. Functional Testing Requirements

These are usually on your QC checklist, but they are worth pointing out separately. It’s really easy to get pulled into the weeds of an AQL and a QC Checklist. Do yourself a favor. Step back and ask: What is the product supposed to do? Make sure that function is being captured on your AQL and QC checklist. It seems obvious, but it gets overlooked all the time.

4. Lab Testing Requirements

This is another part of the QC checklist that needs your undivided attention because it usually requires planning ahead. Make sure your factory knows that the tests need to be performed and passed as a condition of acceptance. A lot of times they are done on raw materials rather than the finished product, and that is unacceptable.

3. Communicate Skillfully With These Three Tips

Learning how to communicate with someone whose native language is different from one’s own, who lives in another country, and who belongs to a culture different from one’s own can be a challenge -- but by no means is it impossible. Develop a good relationship with your supplier (that’s founded on clear expectations), and you can find yourself a reliable, go-to factory for making similar products in the future.

Here are a few additional tips to assist you in breaking through communication problems:

Tip One: A Picture Really Is Worth a Thousand Words

The cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words is no truer anywhere than in working with an overseas factory. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth ten thousand!

We’ve given up trying to explain anything to our suppliers without pictures, screenshots, diagrams, or videos. It cuts through all of the language barriers and cultural differences and gets the job done.

Sure, it requires more effort to take a picture, upload it, mark it up, and send it back than it does to write a short text or email. But consider the massive downside, the potential for confusion, and the phone calls to China at 11 p.m. that it might take to fix a miscommunication. If you take the time to do it right, it will be worth every extra second. The fact that most businesses don't do this is pretty short-sighted. 

Tip Two: Be Objective, Not Subjective

When you're communicating with your overseas supplier, you want to be as extremely specific as possible. 

Fact: This is harder than it sounds. When you tell your supplier that you want something bigger, printed darker, or a little softer, only you know exactly what you mean.

If your requirements are subjective at all, they will be misunderstood, and your product will come out wrong—every time.

Josh Taylor, Product EVO

Fact: If your requirements are subjective at all, they will be misunderstood, and your product will come out wrong—every time. Communicate with suppliers in indisputable, empirical language.

Do the work to figure out how to objectively define your requirements. Get out a tape measure, calipers, calculator, Pantone book, durometer, and whatever tool the job requires. Always be objective in your communication.

Tip Three: Create Your Own Simple Prototypes To Communicate

One of the most effective communication tools is building a simple, rapid prototype of your own that you can take pictures or videos of. This can be a 3D print, a sample made by a local seamstress, or made of clay, paper, cardboard, etc… you get the idea. Just use whatever you have and make a prototype of what you are trying to build.

A number of years ago, we were going around and around with a factory, trying to get them to understand what we wanted in a  custom backpack design. We were at a stalemate until we created a simple prototype out of wire, poster board, and tape. We sent the engineer a video showing how it worked. The problem was solved in 24 hours.

Your own rapid prototype can go a long way in helping to ensure the factory understands what it will be manufacturing. It’s impossible to communicate your product details solely on paper. Sharing your simple, rapid prototypes will also help the factory problem-solve on their own.

Always Identify the Type of Sample in Review

Expressly tell the factory the type of sample you are sending them. During new product development, there are three fundamental kinds of samples:

  1. Works Like
  2. Looks Like
  3. Works Like & Looks Like

A lot of companies want to bypass product development and get a production-ready golden sample from their factory in the first round. It just doesn’t work that way.

Elon Musk says, “Design is overrated, and manufacturing is underrated… It is quickly developing and learning from prototypes and manufacturing that makes good designs a reality.”

Use the iterative prototyping process as an opportunity to learn and make your product even better and to clearly communicate your ideas to your supplier.

Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Good Communication

If maintaining good communication seems like a lot of work, it is! However, taking the time to communicate clearly is far easier and less expensive than the amount of work required to fix surprises and overcome unnecessary setbacks.

Put these methods into practice, stay firm and objective with your communications, and you'll find your relationships developing in positive and productive ways.

If you’d love hands-on help managing new product development, get in touch by scheduling a Product Strategy Call to talk with one of our expert product managers and see if you qualify. Schedule a call